Gerry Thornley: Munster have made it very tough for themselves

Province miss out on opening up big gap at top of Pool 2 after failing to finish off Castres

  Castres players celebrate a penalty against Munster at Stade Pierres Fabre, Castres, France. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Castres players celebrate a penalty against Munster at Stade Pierres Fabre, Castres, France. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

It’s hard to know which left the worst taste in the mouth from Munster’s defeat away by Castres on Saturday, but it probably wasn’t the way some of the home team went about their business, nor even the shoddy officiating which might have seen the home side penalised more heavily than they actually were. More, it was that Munster were clearly the better team over both games and didn’t make it count.

When Exeter reversed their home loss to Gloucester by winning at Kingsholm on Friday night it had left the door ajar for Munster. Victory at the Stade Pierre Fabre on Saturday could have opened up a seven-point lead atop Pool 2.

Not only would Munster have taken a stranglehold on the group, but they would have seriously imperilled the hopes of the other three clubs and thus made them less interested come January.

Instead, it is the most competitive pool of the lot, with just four points between first and fourth, compared with 14, 18, 17 and nine points between top and bottom in the others. Hence, all four teams are alive and can believe that victory in both of their last two games would see them progress to the quarter-finals.

For example, Gloucester host Munster under the Kingsholm floodlights on Friday knowing that a win could take them above Munster. And as things stand Exeter could be coming to Thomond Park a week later knowing that a win would see them finish above Munster and qualify on the head to head record given the draw between the two at Sandy Park on the opening weekend.

Munster have made it very tough for themselves, and the ramifications don’t end there.

Four-way arm wrestle

While they still lead the four-way arm wrestle in Pool 2, and two wins will secure a place in the quarter-finals, that would now almost certainly be away from their Thomond Park citadel.

Admittedly were Munster to win their last two games, most likely they would then be away to the winners of Pool 5, either Edinburgh or Montpellier. Their Euro campaign is still negotiable.

Historically, as well as their uncanny ability to navigate the pool stages, Munster have shown an ability to niggle or provoke opponents as well as anybody. They are no angels. No Irish team is. No rugby team is. But as Johann van Graan said afterwards, Munster played within the values of the game, even if they became a little flustered by the provocation.

Munster most likely want no more direct part in the fallout from this bad-tempered game

It was the toughest game of the weekend to referee, and Wayne Barnes could certainly have done with more assistance from his team of English officials, not least when Peter O’Mahony brought Barnes’ attention to an alleged incident of eye-gouging by a Castres player on Chris Cloete in the 21st minute and in the build-up to the home side’s 24th-minute try.

If Rowan Kitt, like other TMOs, can ask for, and receive, countless replays of try-scoring incidents and the grounding of a ball in the in-goal area, why not refer to an alleged incident of eye-gouging? It was also within clear view of “assistant” Matthew Carley. Whatever about the niggle off the ball or late hits, there’s no place for eye-gouging.

Munster most likely want no more direct part in the fallout from this bad-tempered game, and Cloete might well be reluctant to make a complaint. So the onus rests with the match citing commissioner Chris Catling.

Barnes, again with little or no help from his assistants, singularly failed to keep players on their feet at the breakdown or impost anything resembling the hindmost foot offside line. This was wild rugby.

Yet in the heel of the hunt, Castres still incurred two yellow cards to one by Munster, as well as a 14-10 penalty count, and Munster didn’t manage either of their 10-minute spells with a numerical advantage particularly well.

While it’s easy from the cheap seats or the armchair, when Rory Kockott was sinbinned in first-half overtime with the score at 10-9 the percentage ploy in a low-scoring game away from home in a monsoon on a muddy pitch was to take the three points. Conor Murray must have heard a shout from a team-mate that the tap and pass to CJ Stander (who certainly took the fight to Castres) was on, but Castres were well set and it was a win or bust play.

Sadness

Had they taken that three points, and Joey Carbery kicked one or more of the three penalties he missed, Munster would have won by 15-13 or 18-13 and we’d be having a different conversation this week.

PS: It is with great sadness that many in the Irish rugby press corps will have learnt of the passing of Jean Cormier. Jean was a famed sportswriter with Le Parisien for almost 50 years, covering every Olympic Games since 1968, every Rugby World Cup and much else besides.

It was Jean who coined the phrase, at the end of a working day in the press box, 'we attack the night'

His personality, warmth and generosity were extraordinary. A man from the Basque country, he wrote many books about Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, knew many of Guevara’s family and his rugby coach in Argentina. He was also a friend of the one-time Brazilian president Lula, and introduced Yasser Arafat to his French wife.

When France hosted the 2007 Rugby World Cup, Jean wrote a wonderful guide to all the host cities for the English-speaking travelling media, complete with restaurants, bars and night clubs, and he had probably frequented every one of them.

It was Jean who coined the phrase, at the end of a working day in the press box, “we attack the night”. Somehow it sounded better with a French accent, or maybe that it just came from Jean.

In tandem with another sports writer from l’equipe, Jean also penned a book called Le fils du géant des montagnes (Son of the giant from the mountains).

Jean Cormier was larger than rugby, larger than life and a giant of the press box. May he rest in peace.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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